Associations and costs of parental symptoms of psychiatric distress in a multi-diagnosis group of children with special needs


Dr Gina Browne, McMaster University, Health and Social Service Utilization Research Unit, 175 Longwood Road South, Suite 210A, Hamilton, Ontario L8P 0A1, Canada (e-mail:


Background  Families supporting children with complex needs are significantly more distressed and economically disadvantaged than families of children without disability and delay. What is not known is the associations and costs of parental psychiatric distress within a multi-diagnosis group of special needs children.

Methods  In this cross-sectional survey, families were identified from the Children's Treatment Network. Families were eligible if the child was aged 0–19 years, resided in Simcoe/York, and if there were multiple family needs (n = 429).

Results  Some 42% of surveyed parents exhibited symptoms (mild to severe) of psychiatric distress. The presence of these symptoms was associated with reports of poorer social support, family dysfunction, greater adverse impact of the child's situation on the family, poorer child behaviour, unfavourable parenting styles and poorer child psychosocial functioning. The severity of the child's physical dysfunction was not related to parents/guardians most knowledgeable symptoms of psychiatric distress. Total parent costs were higher and children's uses of primary care services were higher in parents with symptoms of psychiatric distress.

Conclusion  Parent symptoms of psychiatric distress are a significant societal concern in families with complex needs children. Children's rehabilitation efforts need to incorporate parental mental health assessment and treatment into existing programmes. This could lead to decreases in direct and indirect healthcare utilisation costs.